WASHINGTON—Democrats, searching for a unified stance on Iraq, will kick off a Senate debate Wednesday over competing troop-withdrawal proposals that reflect mixed public opinions about the war.
One proposal, offered by Democratic Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, would set a hard pullout deadline of July 2007. A more broadly backed bill, proposed by Democratic Sens. Carl Levin of Michigan and Jack Reed of Rhode Island, calls for troops to begin moving out of Iraq this year, but sets no timetable for final withdrawal.
Though the measures were designed to distinguish Democrats from Republicans on the dominant issue of the day as November's congressional elections near, they also exposed Democratic divisions on the war. Some top Republicans dismissed both proposals as "cut and run" policies and evidence of Democratic incoherence on Iraq.
Senate Republican leader Bill Frist of Tennessee equated the Democratic proposals to surrender.
"We cannot retreat. We cannot surrender. We cannot go wobbly," he said. "The price is far too high."
But at least one Republican senator praised Levin and Reed.
"Levin-Reed starts to get to the real core of responsible policy-making," Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., said in an interview. "It's a very thoughtful presentation. The Levin-Reed amendment is not a cut-and-run."
Levin said he declined to set a specific time for a pullout because it would be "arbitrary" and "precipitous."
Kerry has argued that the Bush administration needs to set a timetable to prod the Iraqi government to take control. Without deadlines, he's said, Iraq will continue to rely on the U.S. military for security.
Levin downplayed the differences between the Democratic proposals.
"The differences between where most Democrats are and where nearly all Republicans are are much greater than any differences among Democrats," he said.
The competing plans were the subject of the Democrats' regular closed-door Tuesday luncheon in the Capitol, which they described as spirited and earnest.
"It's desirable if we could be unified, but there are strong points of view," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who's backing Levin's proposal.
The Levin-Reed proposal also has the support of Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada. His spokesman, Jim Manley, predicted that it would draw 37 to 38 Democratic votes and some Republicans as well.
Kerry had earlier proposed a measure to withdraw from Iraq by the end of this year. When Republicans put that idea to a vote last week, it failed 93-6. Kerry said that by extending that deadline six months he'd gained some votes.
The debate comes as a new poll by the Pew Research Center recorded conflicting views from the American public on the war. The poll, conducted June 14-19, found growing optimism, with 53 percent of respondents saying they thought the military effort was going "at least fairly well." That's an improvement over April, when only 47 percent held that view.
At the same time, 52 percent wanted a timetable for withdrawing troops.
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.